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CHAPTER VII

THE GNOSTICS AND THE NEOPLATONISTS

1

LEAVING aside Plato and his school, whose theories are so well known that we need not recall them here, we shall now leave the comparatively limpid waters of the primitive religions to enter the troubled eddies which succeed them. As the simple and awe-inspiring conceptions whose very altitude hid them from view were lost to sight, those which followed them, and were but their shattered or distorted reflections, became more turbid and increased in number. It will suffice to pass them rapidly in review; for to judge by what we know, or rather by what we know that we cannot know, they no longer have very much to teach us, and can but fruitlessly confuse and complicate the confession of the less knowable and the consequences which proceed therefrom.

Before the reading of the hieroglyphs, the discovery of the sacred books of India and Persia, and the labors of our own scientific metapsychologists, the only sources of occultism were the cabala and the writings of the Gnostics and Neoplatonists of Alexandria.

It is not very easy to locate the cabala chronologically. The "Sefer Yezireh," as we know it, which is as it were the entrance to the cabala, seems to have been written about 829 A. D., and the "Zohar," which is the temple, about the end of the thirteenth century. But many of the doctrines which it teaches go back very much further: namely, to the Babylonian captivity, and even to the bondage of the Isrælites in Egypt. From this point of view, then, we must place it before the Gnostics and the Neoplatonists; but on the other hand it has borrowed so much from the latter and they have influenced it so greatly that it is almost impossible to speak of it until we have said something of those to which it owes the best and the worst of its theories.


2

It is true that these Jewish traditions, for their part, mingled their abundant streams with those of the other Oriental religions which from the first century to the sixth invaded the Greek and Roman theosophy and philosophy, causing men to call in question and to examine more closely the beliefs and theories by which they had lived. There was in the intellectual world, and above all in Alexandria, whither flowed all races and all doctrines, a strange force of curiosity, restlessness, and activity. For the first time — at all events, so it is believed — the Hellenic philosophy found itself directly in contact with the Oriental religions and philosophies — audacious, grandiose, unfathomable — which until then it had known only by hearsay or by niggardly fragments. The Gnostics contributed, among other doctrines, those of Zoroaster, while the mysterious Essenes, theosophists and theurgists, who came from the shores of the Dead Sea, and rather mysteriously disappeared (although in the days of Philo they were forty thousand strong) or were eventually absorbed by the Gnostics, doubtless represented the Hindu element more directly; the cabalists, who existed before the cabala was committed to writing, infused fresh life into the doctrines of Persia, Chaldea, and Egypt; the Christians woke up to find themselves between the Bible and the legends of India; and the Neoplatonists, who might more correctly be called the Neo-Orphics or Neo-Pythagoreans, returned to the old philosophers of the sixth century before our era, striving to find in them truths too long ignored, which were suddenly restored to daylight by the revelations from the East.

We need not here investigate this effervescence, which constitutes one of the most intense, and, in some respects, most fruitful crises ever recorded in the history of human thought. For our present purposes it is enough to note that from the point of view of the idea of God, of the First Cause, of the pre-cosmic Spirit, or the absolute Reality, which precedes all being, manifest or conditioned, as from the point of view of the origin, purpose, and economy of the universe and the nature of good and evil, it teaches us nothing that we have not found in previous religions and philosophies. The manifestations of the Unknowable, the division of the primordial Unity, and the descent of spirit into substance are attributed to the Logos; they change their name without lessening the surrounding darkness. In the attempt to find an explanation of the insoluble contradictions involved by an impassive god and a universe in incessant movement, an unknowable god who is finally known in every detail, a good god who creates, desires, or permits evil, men imagined, first, a threefold hypostasis, and then a host of intermediate divinities, demiurges, or reduplications of God, eons, or divine faculties and attributes personified, angels, and demons. In the backwaters of these specializations, distinctions, and subdivisions, subtle, ingenious, and inextricable, the simple though tremendous confession of the Unknowable was soon submerged by such a tide of words that it was no longer visible.1 Before long it was completely forgotten, was no longer referred to; and the Supreme Unknown engendered so many and so familiar secondary divinities that it no longer dared to remind men that they could never know it. Of course the greater the number of phrases and explanations, the more completely were the primitive verities, on which all was founded, effaced and obscured; so that after men had attained, or regained, in Philo, and above all in Plotinus, the loftiest summits of thought, they descended, on the one hand, to the lucubrations of that Chinese puzzle, the famous "Pistis-Sophia," attributed to Valentinian, and on the other to the pretended revelations of Iamblichus concerning the Egyptian mysteries — revelations which revealed nothing whatever — and the whole Gnostic and Neoplatonic movement ended, with the successors of Valentinian and those who continued the work of Porphyry and Proclus, by sinking into the most puerile logomachy and the most vulgar witchcraft.

We need not, therefore, consider the movement any further: not that the study of this effervescence would be devoid of interest; on the contrary, there are few moments of history at which the mind has been forced to encounter problems of so novel, complex, and difficult a nature, or at which it has given proof of greater power, vitality, and enthusiasm. But what I have already said of this period is enough for my purpose, which is merely to show that the occultists of Greece, and, above all, those of the middle ages, who interest us more especially because they are closer to us, so that our memory of them is more vivid, have nothing essential to teach us that we have not already learned from India, Egypt, and Persia.


1 The Gnostics taught that the Supreme Being, or Perfect Eon, or, as we should say, the Eternal, could be approached only by a number of emanations or eons. In other words, these were regarded as eternal Beings who acted as intermediaries between the Perfect Eon and mankind, and, being joined together formed the Perfect Eon. — TRANS.


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